Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Brian McLaren Interviewed by Scot McKnight

The following interview of Brian McLaren by Scot McKnight at a recent conference is an interesting opportunity to hear McLaren's answers to three pre-approved questions. McKnight does not really debate or dialogue with McLaren: he just reads the questions. So it is really like a structured speech by McLaren.

What I found interesting was the way in which McLaren obfuscates on doctrine and sounds the clarion call with utter clarity on social work and politics. He expresses frustration with those who read him to see if his views are compatible with biblical truth saying that when he is in the presence of people like that it feels like the inquisition. He advocates reading an author for what one can get out of it rather than to see if the author is orthodox, which is to present a false dilemma between two kinds of reading with two different purposes - both of which are perfectly legitimate. To suggest that only one way of reading is legitimate when one has been accused of teaching false doctrine is pretty self-serving and question-begging.

He says he was "stunned" that people could read his book, Everything Must Change, and then ask questions about the doctrine of the atonement - as if to think of a question on atonement after reading a book about Jesus is somehow surprising. He says "I talked about war, I talked about poverty, I talked about the environment - and all they wanted to talk about was atonement theory." The scorn in his voice here is crystal clear: how provincial and uncaring these people must be! Yet, if the greatest need of the poor is to know Jesus and the eternal salvation he offers, then it is cruel and unfeeling to place socialist ideology above the spiritual needs of poor people. Yet this is what he does - and then calls his critics uncaring because they object to his rejection of the penal substitution doctrine of the atonement, which is the heart of the gospel.

The discussion on universalism in the third part is not very interesting to me because I don't think we can know or are supposed to know whether it is somehow possible that more than we think will end up saved. All we know from Scripture is that eternal punishment is eternal and some are eternally punished. To go beyond this is dangerous. But it is interesting to see McLaren dancing around the question like a politician who knows he will lose votes if he gives a clear answer no matter which side he comes down on. It simply reinforces the impression that theology qua theology is not very interesting to McLaren; it is simply a tool that can be used to motivate certain people to embrace left-wing positions.

Answering a question about whether some of the things he writes are "provocatively ambiguous" McLaren compares his approach to that of Soren Kierkegaard, who said that when you are talking to people who are in the grip of an illusion, who are wrong but don't know they are wrong, it is difficult to be indirect. This shows what McLaren thinks of his "theological critics." Of course, it is not the liberals who criticize his theology; they have no problem with his theology because it leads him to agree with them on what they deeply care about: namely, politics. But conservatives are the ones who are concerned about possible false teaching and McLaren shows very little patience for them in this interview. They are the ones who are in the grip of an illusion and are so obviously wrong even though they can't see it. And why is he so sure they are wrong? Because they don't accept his leftist views on politics and ethics.

When asked about whether his rejection of "the Greco-Roman narrative" in A New Kind of Christianity does not contradict his affirmation of the faith of the Christian Church in Generous Orthodoxy, McLaren proceeds to redefine the word "faith." In so doing he sounds a lot like Rudolph Bultmann insofar as he makes a distinction between "faith" as trust and dependence on God and "faith" in the sense clearly meant in the question, which was "faith" in the sense of the main teachings of Christianity: the Gospel and the cardinal doctrines flowing from and supporting the Gospel. McLaren makes a great point of affirming the need for "faith" in the Bultmannian sense, which Evangelicals would not deny, but fails to go to affirm the importance of the Biblical Gospel and major doctrines that flesh out the Gospel, which would be just as important to Evangelicals as "faith" in the sense of trust.

McLaren shows a tendency here to view doctrine in a pragmatic manner; true doctrine is doctrine which leads those who hold it to take up a properly left-wing political stance. False doctrine is any doctrine that leads people to oppose left-wing politics. Doctrine is not true or false in itself; it becomes true or false only when its political outcomes are observed.

McLaren is not shy about specifying who in church history is right and who is wrong. He lists St. Patrick as over against Constantine, St. Francis as over against the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches in their colonial era and their crusading era. He also identifies with the approach taken by the Anabaptists and the Radical Reformation and in the modern era with movements like the Social Gospel, Liberation Theology, Black Theology, Latino Theology, Feminist and Eco Theologies and so on. Ironically, he gives this list of the "Good Guys" right after criticizing those who look in the Church for only one line of purity stretching down through church history. One wonders if he really objects to the methodology or the conclusions because he seems to be utilizing the same methodology by constructing his "alternative history" of what I suppose could be termed "counter-orthodoxy."

If you don't want to invest the time in reading his books, this 18 minute video is an excellent way to acquaint yourself with his main ideas in a first hand way in a short time.

Q | Conversations on Being a Heretic from Q Ideas on Vimeo.


Peter W. Dunn said...

Thanks Craig for this post. I'm not attracted to McLaren. He lost me with this line: "If the gospel is not embodied as good news to the poor, it's not the same gospel as Jesus talked about." This is terribly imprecise and incorrect, even "heretical"--particularly in sense of "schismatic". And I've written about this at the Righteous Investor. If you agree with that line, then you have to change John 3.16 to: "For God so loved the poor, that he gave his only begotten son." It is not good news to the poor. It is good news to all humanity, from the greatest to the smallest--the Spirit is poured out not only upon the poor but upon all flesh, and God does not wish that any perish, but that all would come to a knowledge of the truth, and he desires the salvation of all humanity, especially the believers. For McLaren to say that the gospel must be embodied as good news to the poor is contentious and heretical. So forget about the rest of the video: let's just focus on these divisive and contentious words which distort the gospel.

Craig Carter said...

I'd be happy if he said that true Christians will be charitable toward the poor and so the Gospel is good news for them in that sense in addition to the primary sense that it is good news for all. If the point was that of the book of James - that true faith results in good works directed toward widows and orphans - then it would be fine.

But I suspect we both know what he means by that slogan, which originated in Marxist Liberation theology. He tends to make helping the poor not the result of the embrace of the Gospel but the meaning of the Gospel, which is a huge difference.

David said...

McLaren, like Liberation Theologians fails in assuming that poverty and war can be spoken about without speaking first and always about atonement. Without the sending of the Spirit by the Father and the Son and the claiming of the person by God in this sending, the person remains enslaved to their fallen nature. Remaining enslaved maintains violence and poverty as the sinful self is incapable of the goodness required to truly help the poor.
Do non Christians not help the poor? Well, in my involvement in social justice I see a lot of people, non Christians and Christians, who are involved to glorify themselves, feel good about themselves, justify themselves in the eyes of the world. This urge to save ourselves, this pride, this hubris is the sin of eden, the sin of babel, it is PRECISELY this self this which maintains the cycle of violence and inequality. As such, social justice, without Christ, maintains and does not challenge the real cause of injustice (human sinfulness).
Only in becoming different, something new, through life in the Spirit, can the self become the kind of thing that can be towards the poor as we are called to be. As such, social justice is a consequence of a coherent and orthodox doctrine of atonement, apart from which it cannot have any existence. McLaren, like the liberationists, fail to see this.

Also, his mention of St Patrick exposes what a spoofer McLaren is. He's obviously clueless about St Patrick. Read the only texts we have from St Patrick - they're very short! They show a wholly Pauline and Augustinian Christian, yes they show a Patrick who has had some criticism from other Church figures, but what Church man or woman hasn't. The Same with Francis. McLaren has just read some 19th century liberal theology for the first time and somehow thinks it's radical! He's laughable.

Craig Carter said...

I agree with you 100% (And who would be arguing about St. Patrick with an Irishman anyway?) :)

But I blog about McLaren because so many of my students read him (or hear about him) and think he is a radical and original thinker or even a prophet. It is very frustrating to see what influence he wields among the vulnerable and gullible.

Gordon Hackman said...

I totally agree with the observation about how McLaren and others who share his thinking, seem to be as uncharitable and intolerant as they claim the conservative evangelicals they critique are. This is one of my biggest hang-ups with left wing and emergent type Christianity, is that those who embrace it complain about the narrowness, legalism, and uncharitableness of the religious right, but then go on to display the same kind of uncharitable, condescending and reactionary attitudes towards those on the right that they disagree with.

I too find the refusal to answer theological questions with clarity frustrating. It often strikes me that McLaren and those like him want, on the one hand, to question or ignore historic orthodoxy but then, on the other hand, to complain about how unfair their critics are for questioning their commitment to orthodoxy.

McLaren has come to remind me of a lighter version of Bishop Spong. Spong promotes recycled liberal theology in tones of breathless excitement, like someone rushing into the room annoucing last weeks news. He has no problem, however, coming out and saying that he openly rejects historic Christian orthodoxy. Like Spong, McLaren recycles the same old liberal theology while breathlessly annoucing it as if it were something new and exciting, but unlike Spong, he seems to want to avoid coming right out and saying he rejects historic orthodoxy.

These are mostly just my impressions from following the dialogue surrounding McLaren and from reading some things he's written on the web. I've never felt that compelled to read any of his books or to spend money on them, however, I just picked up "A Generous Orthodoxy" at the Good Will for a dollar and plan to read some of it to get a deeper sense of where he's coming from.